Anne V. Coates is responsible for one of the most celebrated editing moments in world cinema, critics agree.
Anne V. Coates, an English surgical nurse who forsook her calling to perform surgery on some of the best-known motion pictures of the 20th century, earning an Academy Award for film editing in 1963, died Tuesday in Woodland Hills, California. She was 92.
Her death, at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, was announced on Twitter by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Ms. Coats, one of the most celebrated film editors of her era, won an Oscar for her work on “Lawrence of Arabia,” the drama directed by David Lean and starring Peter O’Toole. (The film won six additional Oscars, including best picture.)
In a six-decade career that took her from England to Hollywood, Ms. Coates worked with some of the best-known directors of her time, including, besides Lean, Michael Powell, Milos Forman and Sidney Lumet, receiving four more Oscar nominations along the way.
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“Can you imagine a job,” she once said, “where you get paid to look into the eyes of George Clooney and Peter O’Toole?”
The film editor’s craft is often called “the invisible art,” but it is one of the most vital ingredients in filmmaking, transforming the director’s raw footage into a cohesive motion picture. It was an alchemy long performed in darkened rooms, where white-gloved editors could be seen peering at strips of celluloid held to a light before the frames were sliced and rejoined by hand.
To the editor falls the responsibility of creating the film’s flow and dance, through the painstaking selection of shots, camera angles, cuts, superimpositions and dissolves.
An indication of Ms. Coates’ prowess comes in the fact that Lean engaged her for “Lawrence of Arabia” in the first place: He had begun his film career, in the era between the wars, as an editor.
One of the most celebrated editing moments in world cinema, critics agree, occurs in that film. It involves an on-screen juxtaposition of the kind known as a match cut, where the cutting highlights affinities between two successive images.
In one scene, T.E. Lawrence, a junior British army officer during World War I, is ordered to the Arabian Peninsula. Receiving the order, he leans over to light the cigarette of a British diplomat (played by Claude Rains), and then stares transfixed at the still-lighted match between his fingers.
Lawrence blows out the match, and in the instant he does, the action cuts from the smoldering flame to a panorama of the sunrise over burning desert sands.
In that single cut — born when Ms. Coates looked into O’Toole’s eyes and chose to splice two discrete bits of film together — is contained the passage of time, a journey through space and a delicious visual pun: a literal “match” cut.
Director Steven Spielberg has described that cut as “the transition that blew me away” when he first saw the film.
A proper childhood
The daughter of Laurence Calvert Coates, an architect, and the former Kathleen Voase Rank, Anne Voase Coates was born on Dec. 12, 1925, in Reigate, in the English county of Surrey. She had, she recalled, “an overprotected upbringing” in an impeccably bourgeois family.
“One of my first memories was watching the parlor maid iron The London Times so there were no crinkles in it before my father read it,” Anne Coates said in a 2016 interview.
As a teenager, she was smitten by “Wuthering Heights,” the 1939 epic starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier. She determined to have a career in the movies.
But she would first have to overcome the objections of her uncle, the eminent English film producer J. Arthur Rank. A devoutly religious man, he was determined to protect her from the fleshpots of cinema.
“He thought I was going in for the glamour and to have affairs with actors,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. (She added, “It did happen, but some years later on.”)
Instead she went into nursing, working in the plastic-surgery center in Sussex established by surgeon Archibald McIndoe that specialized in rebuilding the faces of servicemen badly wounded in the war.
“We had mostly pilots in the hospital, and kids who had been playing with bombs they found on the ground,” Coates told The Independent newspaper, in 1998. “Pretty harrowing, actually, but it was intriguing for me just to be meeting other people — it opened my mind to Communism and things like that, which shocked my family.”
When the work became too harrowing, Ms. Coates vowed to find a way to make a career in cinema.
“Things like hairdressing didn’t really interest me,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016. “I found the most interesting job a woman could do, other than acting, was editing.”
Her uncle relented enough to find her a job with the religious-film arm of his company, which made devotional pictures.
“He thought, ‘That’ll cool her down,’ ” Ms. Coates recalled. “Didn’t work.”
After her apprenticeship there, where she ran the projector and made the tea, she caught on as cutting-room assistant at Pinewood Studios, the facility her uncle had established outside London. Early films to which she contributed included “The Red Shoes,” directed by Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
At Pinewood, Ms. Coates’ boss was a white-haired editor who left each afternoon at 4 to tend his garden. “He would say, ‘You finish it,’ ” she recalled, and that was how she learned her craft.
By then she knew she had found her calling: Editing was one of the few branches of the industry relatively hospitable to women.
“Women are mostly mothers and directors are mostly children, so the two go very well together,” she said in a 2005 interview.
In the 1980s, Ms. Coates relocated to California, where she brought her art to Hollywood studios.
Her other Oscar nominations were for “Becket,” directed by Peter Glenville; “The Elephant Man,” by David Lynch; “In the Line of Fire,” by Wolfgang Petersen; and “Out of Sight,” by Steven Soderbergh.
She was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2016. Among her other film credits: “The Pickwick Papers,” “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Erin Brockovich.”
Ms. Coates’ marriage to the English film and television director Douglas Hickox ended with his death in 1988. She is survived by her sons, Anthony and James, both directors, and her daughter, Emma Hickox-Burford, a film editor.
Ms. Coates, who worked into her 90s — one of her last credits was “Fifty Shades of Grey” in 2015 — became skilled in digital editing, which came increasingly to dominate her craft. But though she grew to appreciate its capabilities, she said she sometimes missed the “lovely magic” of taking a strip of celluloid in her white-gloved fingers and holding it to the light.